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Ivy's Girls


I don’t want to talk about Margaret Thatcher and her death last week because it is too easy. A decade’s worth of left-wing friends from anti-war protests, student demonstrations and poor romantic life choices cascaded my internet with invitations to parties. This has been spectacle in the making for a generation — ding dong the witch is dead, this one’s for the miners, and all that. Hatred is easy as performing romantic gestures: men from years ago email, let’s meet in London, Manchester. Hatred is easy as a three minute pop song: everyone played everything, The Smiths, The Specials.

Three electoral terms is a good way to learn the lesson that many things rhyme with apartheid but few things rhyme with Greater London Council. Hatred is easy as hating women: language the day she died smelled so Anglo-Saxon, Chaucer-ish—witch, bitch, harridan, hag. It’s true, to pretend to mourn would feel like a pantomime, British-ly, like a grotesque end of the pier show. It’s true, to pretend her decisions hadn’t ripped through our worlds or families or loved-things would be what was expected of us, Thatcher’s children, too stewed in greed to feel human feelings at words like these: Brixton, teachers, Liverpool dockers, General Pinochet.

Lots of things were true, in that way, the day she died and people made all this noise with words we hadn’t used for a while. I thought about calling my dad and talking about the miners or my memory, aged five in 1990, of him single-parentishly manoeuvring his children through the poll tax marches. We shouted Maggie Maggie Maggie Out Out Out in the style of The Larks. Most weekends he took us down to Covent Garden in a single-parent grab for free entertainment. But it was too easy. What would we say now, ‘She stole our milk?’

State education served me fine, since a Religious Studies teacher caught me reading for pleasure and sneaked me copies of The Guardian while helping me concoct excuses to get out of gym class. I could call my best friend, a teacher who still keeps a first aid kit in his work desk for when the only openly gay student gets the shit recreationally kicked out of him as a substitute for his gym class. We’d make noises about how those were the dark days and I’d tell him about my holiday. I try to reminisce with my friend until I realise — that didn’t happen in my life or your life, that happened in a film with the plotline of Billy Elliot. False nostalgia and reconstructed memory are two creepy twins like the snubbed-nosed sisters in The Simpsons who are always sitting too close to you on the bus. And hatred is easy. I eventually settled on listening to Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Black Boys on Mopeds’, not so much to commemorate the institutional racism, fear and dislocation as because I’d like to go to 1990 to kiss Sinead’s lips in that video and then feel all kinds of guilty about it. I cure myself of all the Anglo-Saxon hate-words I hear that day by trying to remember by heart all the best kisses in My Beautiful Laundrette.

I don’t want to talk about Margaret Thatcher because there is already Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.

I don’t want to talk about Margaret Thatcher because when I do I think about the years I lived as a girl in Runcorn, which is half-mythologised Billy Elliot posturing and half real actual things with smells and love and secrets and twitching synthetic net curtains to see what your neighbours are up to and the feel of chalk on red brick and stories about injuries you get in factories and the National Children’s Home collection tin set on the mantelpiece and threading my blind great-grandma’s needles for her so that she could darn socks and clumpy gravy and the school rumour that went round once that we were bastards and the Avon lady who sells cosmetics always ringing when you’ve just sat down for tea and being stopped on the street and being asked 'Are you one of Ivy’s girls?' and feeling so proud to say yes.

It was a complicated question. My sisters and I were living with my grandma but since grandma Ivy had worked in the orphanage and as a dinner lady the lines of who were her children or grandchildren were slightly porous like the sponge in Sunday trifle. On big occasions there were all these not-real aunts and not-real uncles. But my sisters and I knew we were separate, indulged — barely any rules except when we visited Nan, Grandma’s mum, and Grandma got us to keep quiet by jamming our mouths with lumps of treacle.

I could write some more sentences like this about the north to win Brownie points or trifle or treacle but I’ll spare you. I will say though that Thatcher and my grandma had both perfected the art of the well-placed brooch, and that it was partly Thatcher’s work that meant my dad was down in London while my sisters and I rattled around like useless things, ghosts allowed out to play with my father’s and uncle’s childhood train-sets and 1970s Beano comic collection. We knew we were echoes of the generation before, the shadow of a half-mythologised John Lennon narrative of the one who makes it out, and we recreated most the stories we were told about these giants with mythical childhoods except the one that involved the boys going up to the moors to dig up unexploded second world war bombs, left over from the time when locals had set fire to the hills around Liverpool to distract the German planes. I could write some more sentences like this but I’ll spare you.  Also if I talked about Thatcher and funerals I’d have to talk about that time I stood orphan-feeling next to my dad outside the red-brick church the week I’d just turned twenty-one and then I’d have to talk about all the things that feeling anchorless bought me, the far-away places I got given because I was anchorless and whether it was better that I left just after that and anyway the point is Thatcher’s dead and I don’t go back there.

I don’t want to talk about Margaret Thatcher because there is already Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls.

I don’t want to talk about Margaret Thatcher because she was a chemist. Oh unsexiest of all the sciences, you move me so much it means I can’t even participate in a harmless little One Minute Hate for a dead neo-liberal with quite frightening teeth. Physics is romantic and physicists the most charming in many respects, everybody knows that. But it is the un-mindblowing rhythm of the calculation of lattice enthalpy that will always undo me. 

Last year, well into the thick of adulthood, I took my first voluntary chemistry class. The world and people’s lives were getting complicated around me and as a defence mechanism I wanted to draw diagrams of things.  Reduce things to their elements or something. I didn’t ever quite understand the Born-Haber cycle but I do know that once you know how to compare the relative stability of ionic compounds you get used to seeing things in phrases like ‘relative stability’, and that’s as good a way as any to deal with the limbic-response humanness of all the blobs of history-and-flesh bouncing off each other in your personal life. After my chemistry tuition I’d walk past the courtyard where Thatcher lived when she arrived here in Oxford to study chemistry in 1943. 

When I came here to study history sixty years later, there were still some professors on staff who had protested when female students were allowed to join the college. This is one of the stories you tell friends who visit, like the one about the secret society that writes graffiti on walls in Latin and other members of society sneak out the following night to correct it, or the one about the carved wooden door outside Brasenose, next to the lamppost, that inspired C.S. Lewis to write the Narnia books, and every long-dead person who once got drunk and vomited down this side-alley or that. But I never mention Thatcher to friends who come to visit.  I don’t think it is because of politics but because I want to keep it separate from these stories of who did what where, the buttoned-up girl looking out of her window in Somerville, in her unlovely virginity a Queen Victoria of sensible shoes, our lady of Tupperware and test tubes, squeezing the world so precisely into pipettes. To study chemistry, you used to have to learn German as a prerequisite.  It suits her well, I think, an echo within it of Prince Albert — English girls unshowily manoeuvring variously empire and the principles of the Octet Rule.

I don’t want to talk about Margaret Thatcher because there is already Martin Amis’s Money.

I don’t want to talk about Margaret Thatcher because I get images suddenly flooding in no order and they go like this: the Pet Shop Boys in the back of a London taxi playing with the sexual frisson generated by the British class system; cracked-smiling hostesses rattling round Home Counties front rooms handing out vol-au-vents to party guests; gin and tonic; brass bands; the onomatopoeic punches of tabloid headlines thudding down in a pile thrown on the steps of a newsagent — Gotcha! Gotcha! Gotcha! — as you look up in a public library’s only atlas where are these things called Falklands Islands. 

Then there is the lurid throb of the Channel 4 news sign beaming like a pixelated gem in a 1990s Nintendo game; slack-jawed alternative comedians; racist chants on the back of the school bus. Then there are also things like after you were twenty-one and far away from this and in the same week these conversations happened: at a checkpoint a taxi driver shouted ‘Balfour Declaration! Balfour Declaration!’ and you thought ‘Yeah, you have a point’ and just later someone shouts to someone else who was just becoming their friend ‘Fuck off I barely know you, why should I tell you what happened?’ Then there is now and where I sit as I write this, shiny heart of the old centre, with all its heavy imagery — Brideshead, An Education. American tourists stopping you because you look like Harry Potter. My own psycho-geography of the city a map mainly of stupidities — the café where we shouted that year we were both being religious, arguments in pubs with boys with easily-stereotyped names who represented things, in libraries chewing pens and dreaming of being out in the world, being out in the world and being treated as a symbol and an easily stereotyped thing. 

I don’t want to talk about Margaret Thatcher because there is already Jonathan Coe’s What A Carve Up!

I don’t want to talk about Margaret Thatcher because I don’t want to talk about things that are personal in that way that your stories are not only yours and people in a group can be such a mush of unreliable narrators. And also because not very long ago someone in my real, un-cultural life died and they had big red hair set in that mid-century way and a smile that covered cracks of war and being an unglamorous daughter in some broken time and suited words like ‘grocer’s’ and she had a picture of the Queen on her wall thousands and thousands of miles away from here and her handwriting on letters, when the letters arrived, was not handwriting that any school teaches anywhere any more, just residue of colonial flotsam. She wore brooches too and did that Thatcher thing of scolding the world through her choice of footwear.  There is some church in the middle of I don’t know where that has things with her name on and other places where her writing stays: probably notes tacked on to newspaper cuttings and scrawled on piano sheet music. 

There are rumours and gossip that tore through lives that no longer concern anyone still living. Not that long ago lots of people in my life sent angry and sad and angry-sad emails to each other and I vomited in the toilet of the library. I felt far away, like news of a Prime Minister’s death in the southern hemisphere, portraits of the Queen hanging anywhere, all of them all at once, like the sudden rush of white skirts and petticoats hurtling through the undergrowth and unspoken desires of Picnic on Hanging Rock. Victorian hysteria plays out twice as bad in the heat, the red rocks and the rust and the clamp-clamp sound of Kelly’s metal helmet stuttering down on your mind all at once while you’re half-way poised and cool on a suburban veranda and half-way Jenny Agutter’s blazing body in the middle of scorching nowhere. 

If I talked about Margaret Thatcher I would have to talk about that and I can’t talk about that because it does not make sense in any world in any history that in the dizzying heat and stifling provincial gossip of a specific place somewhere a girl who looked so much like her once sang so far away that there’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover tomorrow when the world is free.

Heather McRobie is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Oxford. She last wrote in these pages about the pros and cons of Cairo. She twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

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